In Civilisations episode 3, Simon Schama explores one of our deepest artistic urges – the depiction of nature. Simon discovers that landscape painting is seldom a straightforward description of observed nature – rather it is a projection of dreams and idylls, as well as of escapes and refuges from human turmoil, the elusive paradise on earth.
Simon begins in the 10th century, in Song dynasty China. The Song’s scrolls are never innocent of the values of that world – the landscapes depict immense mountains projecting imperial authority. But as that authority was threatened and overwhelmed, majestic mountains are represented in geological turmoil, writhing and heaving. Imagined paradises in Islamic and Western art are often responses to loss and absence. But paradise could be recovered in the country villas of the Renaissance.
Simon goes to the miraculously beautiful Palladian house of Daniele Barbaro in the Veneto, with murals painted by Paolo Veronese to contemplate the world of the cultivated country gentleman. It was in the cooler climate of northern Europe that landscape came into its own as a distinctive type of art.
Simon explores the works of the northern Renaissance in Germany and the Netherlands, where emerging states sought expression of identity through depiction of their natural worlds. Simon ends in America where the landscapes of America are as expansive as the landscapes of Holland were confined, but there too, in the numinous photography of Ansel Adams, a kind of earthly paradise is revealed and a sense of nationhood is expressed in the natural world.